Art review: Camilo Ontiveros at Steve Turner Contemporary

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The second solo gallery show by L.A.-based artist Camilo Ontiveros is an elegiac installation. The lament is for a life tragically -- and needlessly -- lost.

It’s also a low-key memorial to a stubborn wish that can never be fulfilled -- the fantasy of absolute security in life. If the two layers don’t always effectively resonate, they do represent the ambitious commitment to complexity that characterizes the young artist’s work.

At Steve Turner Contemporary, Ontiveros once again merges Pop and Minimalist forms, as he did with his show of salvaged and precision-painted washing-machines in 2009. This time, the industrial found-objects are wall-mounted metal boxes -- the kind that house the wiring in security systems for the home or a small business.

One hundred and sixteen boxes of assorted sizes are grouped in grid patterns on the main room’s four surrounding walls. Some of the boxes’ doors are open, showing that they’re empty inside. Each has been buffed on the outside, erasing external signage and lending a worn air of uniform anonymity to all of them.


Only slowly does it dawn on a viewer that, in addition to dominant metallic gray, beige and black, the installation’s muted color palette is restricted to red, white and blue. With the gallery lights dimmed, the quietly patriotic rows of wall-mounted boxes yield the funereal aura of a crypt.

American patriotism has already been given a slight twist at the show’s entrance, where a photograph of a torn and weathered Navy recruitment billboard showing a sailor announces ‘Este es mi país’ -- This is my country. Bilingual military recruitment is common, especially in areas of the country with large Latino populations, and this Navy poster puts one in mind of the border city of San Diego.

The show’s rear gallery closes the circle. There, a plywood pedestal with a pair of lighted candles illuminates a funeral photograph on the wall. In the distance, seen beneath trees across a patchy expanse of cemetery grass, clusters of men, women and children attend the burial of Anastacio Hernandez-Rojas. With their backs to the camera, they’re as anonymous as the crypt-like boxes in the main room.

Hernandez-Rojas, 42, was the victim of a homicide in 2010, according to the San Diego medical examiner. In the immediate aftermath of Arizona’s contentious passage of anti-illegal immigrant legislation -- SB 1070, the so-called ‘Papers, Please’ bill -- the father of five, who had lived in the U.S. since childhood, was deported. In a physical altercation with border agents, Hernandez-Rojas was Tasered numerous times and, according to witnesses, hit and kicked as he lay on the ground. Mexican President Felipe Calderon denounced the incident, and in March the family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the U.S. government.

Ontiveros’ empty security boxes are fitted in between a military recruiting poster with a Spanish-language appeal to country and a funeral scene for a murdered man who wanted nothing but. They refer to the environment of fear, shrouded in worn wrappings of patriotism, that drives America’s broken immigration policies.

The work is a rather impassive and cerebral abstraction, which would benefit from an intensity of personal emotion. But perhaps the irrational hysteria it bemoans makes that untenable.

Steve Turner Contemporary, 6026 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 931-3721, through May 21. Closed Sun. and Mon. ALSO:

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-- Christopher Knight